WASHINGTON – The US should try to use the current situation with Iran as an opportunity to negotiate a new nuclear agreement that would address the flaws of the JCPOA, Sen. Bob Menendez told The Jerusalem Post.
In a special interview during Israel’s 71st Independence Day, Menendez (D-New Jersey), a longtime supporter of Israel, addressed some of the challenges in the Middle East, including Iran, prospects of peace with the Palestinians and bipartisan support of Israel.
“It’s a joyous day, and the 71st anniversary is a dream becoming a reality as the foundation of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people,” he told the Post. “We rejoice not only in that reality, but from the outset, the bond between Israel and the United States is strong largely due to shared values, such as justice equality, freedom, and respect for the rule of law and freedom of the press. So there is much to be rejoicing it.
“In my view, what is becoming an increasingly precarious situation can be turned into an opportunity,” Menendez said, addressing the US’s situation with Iran. “I would turn [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani’s words around and say, ‘Okay, you want to be open to negotiation? We do, too.’ So those negotiations have to deal with the failures of the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action].”
He told the Post that there are a few examples of issues that these negotiations would have to address.
“What happens at sunset?” he said. “What happens on Iran’s pathway after the agreement is finished? I would take the opportunity and say, ‘Okay, we agree, but we want to solve all of the issues.’ Because now the JCPOA is only a few years away from sunsetting, and so this is the time to deal with those issues, and I would urge the administration to go into full diplomatic surge and get our allies to engage in saying this is the moment to go ahead and resolve all those issues.”
So negotiations are still possible?
“Well, I think they’re worth a shot, right? If the world came together and said to Iran, ‘We believe that there were shortcomings in our agreement, and we want to have an agreement that guarantees that you won’t go ahead and use nuclear power for the purposes of a nuclear weapon,’ if what they say is their stated purpose, which for domestic purposes is true, then we can create an agreement in which that is constrained to absolutely that. But you can test the proposition of whether that’s really what they mean, or they really wanted a path to nuclear weapons. And by doing that, then you can galvanize the rest of the world with you instead of just [working] unilaterally.”
You said that the Senate majority leader is using the US-Israel relationship as a political pawn. Why do you feel that way?
“Sen. McConnell, the majority leader, packaged a series of bills that certainly would have received a bipartisan, if not nearly unanimous support, except for one – because of the way that one bill was particularly written. He purposely did it in a way to try to divide Democrats who have a concern about the [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] legislation that was written, over First Amendment issues. And instead of achieving all the goals that are important to the US and Israel by individually voting on those bills, he sought to create a political kind of instance to create a wedge.
“There is another version of the BDS bill done by Sen. [Ben] Cardin in a bipartisan effort, I believe it was with Sen. [Marco] Rubio, but he chose not to include that bill. This is an example of the type of efforts in which the administration and the majority leader are trying to drive a wedge between Israel-US relationships and Democrats. And I think it’s a dangerous proposition because a majority will come and go. Bipartisanship has been the bulwark of our support. And it is critical for Israel to be able to maintain that bipartisanship.”
When asked if he thinks that the president is also trying to draw a wedge between Israel and the Democrats, Menendez responded by saying that “the majority leader is an extension of the president, in his work, what he’s trying to do.”
He gave an example about his work as a senior Democrat at the Foreign Relations Committee: “As one of Israel’s most vocal supporters, I hear about decisions that are incredibly important to Israel and the Middle East from the press. Not from the administration. This is the first time in over three administrations that I have dealt with since I came to Congress 27 years ago – from president Clinton to president Bush to president Obama – that there is virtually no consultation. I think that is not good for the United States in terms of the development of its foreign policy, nor is it good in terms of creating a bipartisan atmosphere.”
When you look at your party, are you afraid that Democrats are becoming less supportive of Israel?
“No. I think there are a few voices, but it is always amazing to me that the few who are vocal seem to create worry and anxiety. I would count a handful of individuals, particularly in the House of Representatives. But if you look, for example, at all the new Democratic members of Congress, which are about 50, there’s about three or four who may hold a different view, but the other 50 hold the views that I hold. I think that to suggest that the views of the few [represent] the views of the many is the wrong way to look at things.
“That would be the equivalent of saying that because Sen. Rand Paul consistently votes against, for example, the memorandum of understanding and he is one of the people who wanted to cut aid to Israel by 10% a year for 10 years, which could have meant Israel would have gotten nothing at the end of 10 years – does that means that that’s a Republican trend? I don’t believe that that’s what we called it.”
Were you troubled by the latest statement by members of your party?
“I strongly reject their views, and I strongly oppose those views. But I think sometimes when we give so much attention to people who hold the views as [some have] expressed, we are almost magnifying them beyond the importance of who they are. And I think that is a risk as well.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu said during his reelection campaign that he would consider annexing parts of the West Bank after the election. When asked where he stands on this issue, Menendez told the Post that Israel has to decide whether it’s still sticking to the two-state solution, or whether it has abandoned that idea.
“If they have abandoned that idea, and it is a one-state solution – then there is a challenge, because it is hard for Israel, based upon the demographics of the population to ultimately be Jewish, which I believe it should be – and be democratic, which I think it will be very hard to be,” he said. “It has to choose its courses. Whether we’re talking about annexing parts of the West Bank or whether we’re talking about the Golan, or anything else – the bigger question is: have you abandoned the two-state process? Because if you have, then doing these things may be in your unilateral interest. But if you haven’t abandoned the two-state process, then you’d have to think about when you continuously take everything off the table that might be the subject of a negotiated agreement, then what is there to negotiate to achieve a two-state solution?”
Another issue that is currently in discussion between Israel and the US is 5G networks. Last month, National Security Adviser John Bolton discussed with his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat, ways to expand cooperation between the US and Israel in securing the new networks.
When asked why it is so vital to the US, Menendez explained: “We don’t care about a commercial challenge. We have to compete with China, not just confront it.”
“But when we talk about critical security infrastructure, in which the 5G process becomes not just one in which you become a commercial partner with China, but you become a commercial partner with the Chinese military and intelligence – that can undermine your own national security interests,” he said.
“What we’re trying to tell our partners globally is don’t look at this strictly in a commercial context. Think about it as it relates to the security infrastructure that you may be undermining. While you may think that this is a golden fish, you may, in essence, have an Achilles heel at the end. That’s the context in which we’re trying to get our allies to consider this. I’m a big advocate of seeking to create an international coalition that will develop its own 5G architecture so that we won’t have the security challenges, but we will have an economic benefit.”
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